No. 346.
Mr. Biddle to Mr. Fish.

No. 111.]

Sir: In my dispatch No. 107, I described the “temblor” of the 4th instant. At two o’clock a.m. of the 19th, a fearful earthquake overwhelmed the whole city of San Salvador and its vicinity.

The dreadful catastrophe, with its startling phenomena, may pardon a digression from the formality of official correspondence to a narrative of personal experience. My family, who had found refuge in the mountains from the alarm of the 4th instant, had returned to the city with the subsiding anxiety. All had continued tranquil, when at about two o’clock on the morning of the 19th I was aroused by a violent earthquake. I hastily dressed and hurried my family to the open air. Although in the dry season, heavy clouds obscured the moon, and the atmosphere was oppressive. These meteorological indications have been frequently noticed at such times. For some fifteen minutes all was still. We were on [Page 809] the eve of returning to rest when a terrific reverberation, which baffles description, proceeded from subterranean depths, as if the very globe was being rent in twain; the earth swelled and heaved, and split in chasms, and within less time than I can write it the whole city was a chaotic ruin. It came crashing down with dreadful din, and above all arose a maddened yell from the frantic populace, and then there was a dreadful silence, with clouds of stifling dust; then another loud concussion under foot, and another terrible convulsion of the earth, with the crash of buildings and the wild outcry from men and animals.

We were saved as by a special interposition of Providence. In the center of the “patio” or court-yard of my residence is a little orange tree. In the black night this indicated the spot farthest from any falling wall or roof. Here we collected, and clung to its branches, as the surging ground yawned, and closed, and quivered, and shock succeeded shock; thunderings under foot growing louder and yet more awful, and a dreadful concussion distinguishable above all from the simultaneous crash of a falling city. Not only our whole house, furniture, &c., was completely demolished, but the ground had opened and one-half of our garden had slid into the valley below!

This experience was that of all. It seemed as though daylight would never dawn; and at last it disclosed a dreadful scene of devastation—palace, churches, court-houses, warerooms, dwellings of the poor and rich, all suffering one common fate, whilst the avenues to the ruined chapels were thronged with tearful multitudes who knelt in the open air to supplicate Heaven for safety.

Our own preservation seemed almost miraculous; our house a shapeless ruin, and heavy beams and fragments of masonry surrounding us and within two feet of the little tree round which we had rallied as our only sanctuary from inevitable death. I breathed a prayer, silent but fervent, to the Great Being who had preserved us from the dangers of the past night. With the gray of dawn a brave Kentuckian, settled here as a mechanic, Mr. Carter, an insurgent in the rebellion, but now a loyal citizen, scaled the ruined walls to be assured of our safety, and by his side was Mr. Bogen, a noble German sugar-planter, who said that he had ox-carts in the suburbs to carry my young family to a safe asylum at his estate, Monte Christo.

There were many acts of courage and devotion which shone like beacons mid the devastation.

Daylight disclosed the most appalling spectacle—a prosperous mountain city reduced by one mighty blow to shapeless ruin; and this extending to the many neighboring Indian villages, thus differing from destruction by fire, although to heighten the horrors here a whole block was wrapped in flames from the explosion of chemicals. Also, when the first fury of a conflagration is spent, human efforts may arrest its progress, but man is impotent to stay the “temblor,” or to divine its career.

The thoroughfares were filled four feet deep with the debris of buildings, and any there must have hopelessly perished. The terrified population poured in swarms to encampments in the open fields.

I promptly visited President Gonzalez, whom I found in a tent pitched in the public plaza. He was calm and energetic, devising means for the general safety and tranquillity. I offered deepest sympathy and any services within my power. He answered with a tear and a pressure of the hand.

Most harrowing is the despair of the poor; very many have lost their all.

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Millions will not cover the damages throughout the state; but it is vain at this time to attempt an estimate.

The range of the “terremotos” has been from east to west, and they still continue, but with decreasing frequency and force. Singularly, the neighboring cities of Santa Tecla and Cojutepeque, both on elevations, have entirely escaped.

The President informed me that the seat of government would continue as before, and that efforts would be early made for the restoration of the city.

San Salvador has been repeatedly thus destroyed, last in April, 1854, but the President said never so completely demolished as now. The only buildings standing are a few frame houses, the builders and materials for which lately arrived from the United States.

The loss of life has been remarkably small; the President did not compute it at more than twenty-live. This is owing to the warning given by the first and lighter shock, and to the open “patios” or court-yards into which every room in the one-storied structures opens.

I have &c.,